When is my sourdough starter ready to use?

To have success with sourdough one of the most critical things to have is a starter that is vigorous, bubbly and ready to bake with. A question I often get asked is “When is my sourdough starter ready to use? How do I tell?”.

Your sourdough starter is unique to you. It may have been handed down the generations, been given to you by a friend or you may have spent an agonising five to ten days waiting for the flour and water sitting on your kitchen side to finally ferment and smell lovely. Whatever the origins of your starter it will be unique. Even if it was passed on to you by a friend after it has been in your kitchen, fed different flour and stirred by you it will be different to your friend’s original starter. This means that it will act differently to other people’s starter so you need to get to know your starter.

The only way to get to know your starter is to watch it. Watch for how it behaves after being fed. Notice how quickly it takes to rise and double or even triple in the container. Does it have a layer of hooch liquid on top? How does it smell?

We all keep our starters in different environments. You may keep yours on the worktop in a warm kitchen, or a cold kitchen. Your starter might live in the fridge between loaves. You may mix your starter to be fairly loose like a pancake batter or stiff like a dough. You may feed it with white flour, wholemeal flour, spelt or rye. There are lots of different ways to maintain a sourdough starter and they are all fine as long as you get to know your starter and learn to recognise when it is ready to use to rise a dough.

How healthy is my starter?

To be healthy a starter has to have a minimal acid load. A starter is a mixture of yeast and bacteria. The bacteria produces both lactic and acetic acid. White flour favours lactic acid. A white sourdough starter will have a milky smell about it. Wholemeal and rye starters favour acetic acid and a starter made with these flours will have a tang much like a mild apple cider vinegar smell. A healthy starter will not have a strong vinegary smell. If yours does then it has a high acid load. A strong vinegary smell suggests that the bacteria has produced a lot of acetic acid, this can happen in a sourdough fed with white, wholemeal or rye flour. A high acid load in your starter will mean that the yeasts will struggle to thrive in the acidic environment and the acid can also cause the gluten to degrade. Your dough will not rise sufficiently as the yeast won’t be present in a sufficient amount to produce the carbon dioxide to get trapped in the gluten. The dough may also be sticky and make ribbon patterns when stretched. A sign that the gluten has degraded. The dough won’t have developed enough gluten to support bubbles to trap the carbon dioxide. When you come to shape it, it will be loose and flabby and won’t hold any tension. As it bakes it will flatten out and make a frisbee of a loaf.

To overcome acid load you need to give the starter a good refresh. Take two tablespoons (about 30g) of your starter and place into clean bowl. Discard the rest. Add 100g of your choice of flour and 100g water and mix really well. This mixing will help to incorporate air in to the starter and the oxygen will boost the yeasts. Leave the starter in a warm place if you can. It is helpful to draw a line on the container to use an elastic band to mark the top of the starter. This way you can easily judge how much it grows in a given time. Keep an eye on it. Your starter should double within 6-8 hours. Ideally it will triple in size. If it doesn’t, repeat the refresh and wait another 6-8 hours. Your starter should be filled with bubbles and smell sweet with a slight tang.

How do I know when to use it?

If your starter is doubling or ideally tripling in size with 6-8 hours of being fed you have healthy starter and you can use this either as a young starter (4-6 hours after a feed) or as a mature starter, (up to 12 hours after a feed) or any time between and it will rise your loaf well. If it is more than 12 hours after its last feed then it is better to make a levain/ production starter to make sure that you don’t have too much acidity. To do this take up to 50g of your starter and feed it with 100g flour and 100g water, mix well and leave it again for 4-6 hours before using it to make a loaf.

A healthy starter will make a huge difference to your final loaf. It will give the dough strength because of the healthy yeast population and the lack of degrading acids. It will allow your loaf to ferment fully and develop good flavours and aromas. Your dough has a better chance of holding a good shape and achieving maximum oven spring.

A bad starter will leave you struggling to create strength in the dough, it will make the dough sticky to handle and hard to shape and it will flatten out rather than rise up as you bake your loaf.

Get to know your starter and learn when it is ready to bake with and you will be rewarded with an easier sourdough journey. I can’t promise that it will always be easy as sourdough will always present challenges, that’s part of its attraction, but a healthy starter definitely makes things easier.

Related articles: Making and looking after a sourdough starter, Why is my sourdough dense?, My Top Three Sourdough Books

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